“Captain Phillips”: Jack Sparrow is the Edward Cullen of Movie Pirates

Barkhad Abdi, Mahat M. Ali, Captain Phillips

For the first few weeks after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, Captain Phillips was the only nominee within reach of movie buffs who prefer home video to theaters. You’d think this would give it an advantage with the voters; instead it seems to have been handicapped by its October release, quote-unquote “early” compared to most of the other contenders, and hasn’t factored into most of the Oscar-guessing convos I’ve seen. I watched it a month ago and procrastinated writing about it because I figured everything that could be said has already been said, so why bother?

The short answer: Oscarmania completism. I watch every Best picture nominee every year whether they look appealing to me or not. I normally don’t write about everything I watch on home video (though I’m thinking about changing that soon), but it seems silly to devote entries to eight of the nine nominees while arbitrarily skipping this one. Onward, then.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Two-Time Academy Award Winner Tom Hanks is a true-story Merchant Mariner who saw his ship commandeered by Somali pirates and lived to tell the tale. Although Hanks is the central figure, the crew serving under him were no less brave as they stood together against invaders who seem to have been better armed than they were.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: As he did with United 93, director Paul Greengrass chose to fill out numerous roles with non-actors. Among the few faces I recognized were Max Martini (Pacific Rim‘s Aussie Jaeger pilot dad) as a high-ranking Navy SEAL; Catherine Keener (Where the Wild Things Are) as Mrs. Captain Phillips; and…uh, a bunch of character-actor guys that I expect I’ll remember from Phillips wherever I see them next.

Nitpicking? Not a complaint, but it’s interesting to me that Phillips never personally puts up any physical resistance to the pirates, never wields a single gun, and spends the final harrowing half-hour as a frightened hostage, trying to be as kind and compliant as possible under the circumstances. If you go into this movie expecting him to be the one true Rambo who saves the day with action heroism, you’re in for a letdown.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Much of the movie isn’t entirely about celebrating Phillips’ actions, but what he inspired in his men, how he helped them gain any advantage from his own limited space, and how his survival ultimately depended on the kindness of others.

When the Mariners needs backup, jurisdiction over the incident transfers to the Navy SEALs, whose portrayal here shows a different side that doesn’t lend itself well to thrilling movie magic. Their work isn’t always about blazing gunfights or kung-fu melee. Let the tools and the tech do their jobs, and remain patient even under duress until it’s time for your part in the plan. It sounds anti-cinematic, but Greengrass and his team find a way to connect with us anyway.

On the other side of the divide, the film is even more complex when it switches to the perspective of the four pirates. They’re wholly unromanticized, played as the real-world variety of pirate that won’t make the ladies swoon and claims no scalawag’s high ground by stealing from rich, snobby Englishmen and giving to the poor or the debonair. The alternative, stealing from the poor and giving to the poor, would be stupid because the poor have nothing. Bottom line: in the homeland of lead pirate Muse (steely Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi) and his three men, “A pirate’s life for me!” isn’t a proud declaration, but a surrender to the only viable career track in front of them. In their constricted little segment of the world economy, they can be fisherman serfs or pirate warriors. That’s not much of a choice, even for the one underage pirate who’s not fully matured into the job. One can hear faint echoes of The Wire as Muse resigns himself to the fact that, for himself and his team, it’s all part of The Game.

So did I like it or not? “Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Captain Phillips the greatest Merchant Marine movie of all time!” Enjoy your pull quote, Sony.

On the small screen, Greengrass’ visceral shaky-cam aesthetic retains its naturalistic feel and tension without inducing nausea or headaches. Hanks pulls us into Phillips’ world through his inadequacies as well as his humble perseverance under the most nerve-rattling circumstances. The crews on either side of the conflict are well-coordinated ensembles, even those who’d never acted before. Phillips succeeds as a suspenseful showdown between the Team First-World champions and the Team Third-World underdogs, where commerce and careers are as much at stake as their lives are. It left me wondering if it might have meant a lot more to one side than it did the other, though.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Captain Phillips end credits, but if you stick around long enough beyond the actors’ names, further down are the real Merchant Marines and other military men who appeared in the film — some reprising their own lives, some playing other roles instead. It’s like a game of Video Concentration, trying to remember if any of the real-life names match those you saw earlier in the Cast list. So your reward for sticking around is a bonus puzzle.

6 responses

  1. I got to see this film in the theater and on home video. I was impressed with it in the theater. And I had no problem the second time around on the small screen. It adds up nicely in all its quiet and low key moments. You think that the ship’s crew will overtake the pirates somehow-that can certainly happen in fact or fiction. In this case, Captain Phillips measures out his risks and options like a champ. Realism is given due respect in this film and it makes for fine entertainment.


    • Agreed! Paul Greengrass excels at films that don’t feel like ordinary Hollywood vehicles stuck with all the usual tropes or trappings. I regret missing this one in theaters, but the trailer didn’t quite bowl me over for some reason.


  2. Perhaps you weren’t aware of it, Randall, but the studios send you DVDs of most films nominated in major categories, if you belong to any of the guilds or unions and can vote for awards. My wife’s in the WGA, so starting in late October we got 2-3 screeners/wk, about 30 in all, most accompanied by shooting scripts. The only two big films we didn’t get and had to go to theaters to see were 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

    The ordinary way for people who vote on awards to see the movies is at home. I enjoyed reading your review!


  3. Only because I’ve been corrected a 1000 million times, I need to speak on behalf of mariners and state: It’s the Merchant Marine. No “s”. And those that are in the Merchant Marine are Merchant Mariners. They are a bit touchy about that, let me tell you! 🙂
    My own mariner was screen tested for a role and didn’t get it; we haven’t seen it yet, sometimes he goes through “piraty” areas and I think he doesn’t want to jinx his so far good luck.


    • Rats. I was afraid I’d mess something up. Sorry about that! I’ll have to edit the piece here shortly. Thanks for helping me get it right!

      As soon as the film mentioned it, you and the Captain sprung immediately to mind. I really can’t blame him for not wanting to jinx himself, though.


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